Food and Cooking
Not for nothing did Louis Armstrong sign his autographs, "Red Beans and Ricely Yours." Here is why beans and rice throughout the world are served together. Beans by themselves are an incomplete protein. They need either an iron-rich food (meat, for instance) or grains to make them "complete." Beans and rice contain complementary amino acids; what the former lacks, the latter has, and vice versa. So, whether you're eating them in a stew served over rice or mixed up together in a bean cake or patty, you're doing the right thing by joining them.
First of all, check out the spelling, folks. A "current" is either "what's happenin'" or a swirling movement in a body of water. A "currant," on the other hand, can be had either fresh or dried. Fresh, they come black, red, or white, and the black ones (used to make creme de cassis, for instance) are the most valuable. You don't see them very often in the U.S. The dried ones, however, you see all the time--right next to the raisins in the dried fruits section of the grocery. But guess what: They're not dried currants--they're actually dried, dark-skinned black Corinth grapes. Raisins, though, are dried Muscat grapes or dried Thompson grapes or even dried Sultana grapes. What's the taste difference? (It's kind of like asking what's the difference between a bottle of Merlot and a bottle of Syrah.) Raisins are a tiny bit sweeter and grainier than currants. Make sure you know what your recipe is asking for.


Both squid (calamari) and octopus are members of the cephalopod family, a class of mollusks. They are carnivorous, which means they bite. So look out, if ever you run into a live one. The main difference is that squid are long and slender with all of their eight legs at one end, while octopus are more floaty and amorphous looking, with their eight legs spread all around their bodies. Both are lean, muscular animals, high in protein and low in fat, and they are considered "complete" foods because they provide all of the essential amino acids. Either one is much easier to work with if purchased already cleaned.


In the food world there are a lot of very, very complicated barbecue sauces, ranging from dry rubs to marinades. A little secret the Chinese have always known is: Keep it simple. Rely on hoisin sauce. Try this mixture if you're cooking for two (for four or more, double or triple it): 4 tablespoons hoisin sauce, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 2 tablespoons peanut oil, 4 minced cloves of garlic. You can use it either as a marinade or to brush on during grilling.


Whether it's for pizza dough or any other kind of pastry, the recipe will often tell you to brush your hands with flour to keep the dough from sticking. While this does keep the dough from sticking to your hand, too much extra flour can make the dough too dry. Instead, try using olive oil, another vegetable oil, or butter (depending on what kind of dough you're working with). Not only will it unstick you, it has the added benefit of moisturizing your hands!


Have you ever wondered why, even if you can make a tasty and satisfying chocolate or vanilla milkshake at home, you just cannot duplicate the taste of a diner's coffee milkshake? Even if you use top-of-the-line coffee ice cream? What any true coffee milkshake aficionado knows is that you need coffee syrup, which is not just concentrated coffee with sugar. It's actually a blend of several ingredients (including corn syrup and coffee extract), and it's sort of a dark butterscotch color. The best and most easily available brand is Eclipse. Buy it today, and start slurping.


Contrary to popular assumption, carmelized onions are not cooked in sugar. Their sweetness comes about naturally by their long-term, slow-frying in a combination of oil and butter. You don't want to use only butter because it burns too easily. But a blend of about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter per 4 cups of thinly sliced onion works nicely. Brown them slowly and steadily in the melted shortening over medium heat for about a half hour. Toward the end, add a generous pinch of salt, which actually enhances the sweetness. They should be a beautiful reddish brown. (If you want them extra-sweet, you can add a tablespoon of brown sugar with the salt, but they really will be quite sweet on their own.)


And you thought they were just a nuisance in your yard, a weed to be removed! Nosiree, the dandelion plant, before it flowers, is an excellent source of vitamin A and a fairly good source of vitamin C, iron, and calcium. Cultivated dandelion greens are less bitter and have longer leaves than their wild cousins, but both work well in salads, soups, stews, or even as part of a mixture of steamed greens.


As most folks know, sun-dried tomatoes are not cheap. Not only that, but if you try to sun-dry them yourself, they could mold away or be stolen by raccoons and other varmints before they get through drying. But you can make your own while you sleep. Just before bedtime, halve all of the tomatoes in a container of cherry tomatoes. In a large bowl, drizzle them with olive oil and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Place them on a baking sheet and put them in the oven at 175 degrees. When you get up in the morning, there they will be: intensely flavored little beauties. If you want to keep them dry, you can store them in a plastic bag. If you want oiled tomatoes, store them in a jar covered with olive oil. They will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.


A few years ago, when dietary fanaticism began its ascendance in the U.S., everyone was urged to cut salt from the diet. While it is true that many processed foods are overloaded with salt and should be avoided, it is not true that salt should be cut altogether from the diet. We need salt in order to live. If it weren't essential to life itself, it would not be a main ingredient in the seas and oceans. Which leads to an important point: Sea salt is the most nutritious and flavorful of the salts. Like Kosher salt, it is larger and square-grained and contains iodine and other minerals. Its intensity means that you will use less of it. Salt's greatest asset lies in its capacity to bring out the flavor of other foods. This is why it is the favorite ingredient of any real confectioner; it makes the sweet components taste sweeter. If you don't believe it, slice a cantaloupe in half. Take one of the halves and taste it plain. Sprinkle salt on the other half, and taste which one is sweeter.


If you've ever made your own soup and stored the leftovers in the refrigerator, you know it thickens as it sits. But be careful when you reheat it. On the one hand, you don't want it to scorch from being too thick. On the other hand, you don't want to overestimate how thick it is. Let it begin to warm up before you add water. When it is just starting to get warm, you will be better able to judge its consistency.


Before there was refrigeration, there was salt. All meat was at one time salt-cured. Salt's preservation action is twofold. First it draws out moisture by osmosis, fending off microorganisms, which thrive in moist environments but not in dry ones. Second, the brine formed by salt and moisture in combination retards the growth of surface microorganisms. This is still the process at work in cured meats such as bacon, ham, and certain types of sausage. And of course any pickled vegetable relies on the combination of salt and vinegar. Salt is even necessary in the freezing of ice cream!


Salt occurs within foods in varying amounts. All animal sources have higher amounts of salt than do vegetable sources, with seafood such as shellfish and anchovies having the highest content of all. These things seldom need additional salt. Yet even some vegetables that we think of being in need of salt don't need as much salt as others. The following vegetables have a reasonably high sodium content: artichokes, beets, carrots, celery, most greens, endive, and corn. Use your salting arm lightly with these.


Unlike with certain vegetables such as cucumbers or eggplant--which need salt in order to be drained of their water before you start cooking them--salt should be used very sparingly, if at all, at the start of any stewing or braising in which a lot of liquid will evaporate. With soups, stews, and sauces, you should do the salt taste-test in the last few minutes of cooking, as it is virtually impossible to get rid of the over-salted flavor. (Even adding sugar only masks it and does not get rid of the excess.) Similarly, all grilled, broiled, or roasted meat should be seared thoroughly, in order to retain juices and flavor, before any salt is added.


As we already know, salt works best with most foods when added judiciously at the end of cooking. But how do you judge how much salt a given dish needs? For starters, do not taste-test using only the tip of your tongue. Use the middle and sides as well (the way you see wine-tasters sloshing the stuff all around their mouths). The middle and sides are where the greatest receptors to salt stimulus lies. This is where your dinner guests will be tasting the effects of over- or under-salting.


How many times have you opened a can of tomato paste only to use a tablespoon or two for the recipe you are working with? You dutifully wrap the can in foil or plastic, stick it in the fridge, only to find it a few weeks later... no longer looking like tomato paste. What a waste. Yet exactly the same substance comes in a tube just like toothpaste, which allows you to use the amount you need and then store the rest. Tomato paste in a tube will keep in the refrigerator for months after you open it, and each time you use it, it will taste just as fresh as the first time.


How many times have you opened a can of tomato paste only to use a tablespoon or two for the recipe you are working with? You dutifully wrap the can in foil or plastic, stick it in the fridge, only to find it a few weeks later... no longer looking like tomato paste. What a waste. Yet exactly the same substance comes in a tube just like toothpaste, which allows you to use the amount you need and then store the rest. Tomato paste in a tube will keep in the refrigerator for months after you open it, and each time you use it, it will taste just as fresh as the first time.


Recipes for foods that are pan-fried, such as trout, salmon patties, or bean cakes, often call for cornmeal as a coating. For an extra bit of crunchiness and flavor, try substituting uncooked grits, which are also made from cornmeal. Just use the same amount of grits that you would if you were using cornmeal. See if anyone notices the tasty difference!


Many stores specializing in cookware now carry individual casseroles, which function especially well as little lidded soup tureens that keep soup warm at the table. Some of them are seasonal--for instance, pumpkin shaped bowls whose ceramic tops lift off with a stem. These bowls have food-safe glazes and are microwave and dishwasher safe. Most of them are even oven safe. Check them out. They are both eye-pleasing and functional.


If you have ever opted out of making mashed potatoes because you find the mashing itself too much of a chore (but you know that whipping or processing them is not going to give you the right texture), here is a product you should know about: the double masher. That's right--this masher has two rows of mashing plates. While one mashes, the other folds, creating the perfect consistency and freeing you from having to stir the potatoes after you have mashed them. The double masher is made of stainless steel all the way through and is pretty nifty to look at as well as to hold. Check your local specialty stores or find it in the Sur la Table catalogue.


Whether you are baking something in a glazed or unglazed pan, it is always best with ceramic to start the dish in a cold oven. Place your assembled casserole, pie, etc., in the center of an oven that has not yet been turned on. Turn the oven on to the appropriate temperature, and allow 5-10 minutes extra baking time in addition to what the recipe calls for. Many ceramic dishes will crack in temperatures above 375 degrees, so be careful.


More often than not, a recipe will tell you to use, instead of "a cup of tomatoes" or "two diced potatoes," a "pound" or "3/4 pound" of whatever vegetable. You're probably left wondering, how the heck much is a pound? European cooks for decades, if not centuries, have relied on kitchen scales as a necessary foundation for cooking. The best scales are unobtrusive, blending right in with the decor of your kitchen. The Salter scale, which looks rather like an old-fashioned barometer, is one of these. It's petite, comes in a blonde wood casing, and has a chrome dial and stainless steel tray. At only 8 and 1/2 inches tall, it is shorter than your coffeepot and will fit nicely on the countertop next to it. Now you can measure ingredients with precision.


Carving and/or serving a roast, a ham, or a turkey can be a real nuisance without a cutting board that will hold the meat in place. Some smart person using Vermont hardwood has come up with the ideal solution: the Gripper Cutting Board. It's a 1-inch-thick (14" by 18") board that comes with a removable stainless steel pronged ring in its center to hold the roast in place while you slice. A channel (kind of like a little moat) catches all of the meats juices so that gravy and reduction sauces, too, become ever so much easier to make.


The Turkey Lifter may be the most helpful kitchen invention of all time. It's a remarkable tool that allows you to remove from the roasting pan with great ease a roast or turkey weighing up to 24 pounds! Its sure-grip handles wrap around the roast or bird, eliminating even the need for trussing. Then, after you clean it, the handles fold flat for storage. If you're not going to get it for your own holiday preparations, then buy one for the cook in your life who will appreciate it.


It's not just wine that needs to be stored in a cellar in order to be served perfectly. If you are a serious cook, then you probably use Kosher or sea salt rather than iodized table salt in the kitchen. These large-grain salts, of course, will not work in shakers, because no shaker holes are large enough to allow their passage. You have to store them in ceramic bowls, but what kind of ceramic bowls? Take a tip from French and Italian chefs, who store their salt in glazed porcelain cellars, with a kind of a hooded tunnel-like opening that protects the salt from the elements of the kitchen, like gnats, fruit flies, and spattering grease or water. You can keep it right next to the stove, where you will need it most often, and it will be perfectly safe.


Have you ever, in the middle of serving up the dinner plates to your guests, thought, "Gosh, this rice looks kind of messy on the plate?" Well, leave it to the Japanese to invent a rice mold now available in the U.S. for home use. The rice mold, which comes in two sizes (one for individual servings and one for whole-table dishes), is made of rubberized wood. It creates a perfectly rounded mound with a well in the center for gravy, sauce, or dressing. It will change the whole look of your dinner table. It also works for couscous, tablouleh, and other grains.


The best way to reheat cold pasta stored in the refrigerator is also the simplest way. There is no need to recook it and especially no need to microwave it. The only way to avoid altering its flavor or texture is this: Place it in a colander, run it for one minute under the hottest tap water, let it drain completely, then serve with reheated sauce. And remember that pasta, like rice, does not fare well after more than three days in the refrigerator.


As natives of the North Country know, the most natural way to grill fish is on a cedar plank over an open fire. The essence of cedar is imparted to the fish, giving it an incomparable flavor. Not many of us, however, have the opportunity for cooking over an open fire. The next best thing is a genuine cedar plank, treated so that you can use it in the oven. It comes with its own caddy so that you can carry it directly from the oven to the table. Look for the Original Chinook Cedar Baking Plank, and make your fish-cooking time both quicker and tastier. A CANNED SOUP THAT NEEDN'T BE PANNED Canned soups are generally the last refuge of the flu-stricken or the parent who needs to restock the pantry--not to mention the fact that they are a reminder of all that was questionable about the 1950s. But guess what? There's one soup that might fool even the discriminating into believing it came from a real kettle. It's Patak's "Hot Indian" Mulligatwany--the famous vegetable soup that the colonists brought back to Britain from the Jewel in the Crown. This one is not only convenient; it's also nutritious and low in calories with only one gram of fat. For an extra hit of flavor, squeeze in some fresh lemon or lime juice just before serving. (You may be asking, "Where the heck do I get this stuff?" Well, it's in most supermarkets in most cities. It really is. Just ask if you don't find it!) BREAK UP CHOCOLATE WITH A CHOCOLATE BREAKING FORK We've all had to deal with them--those recipes that call for a fourth of a square of unsweetened chocolate. You stand at your chopping board sawing away at the square only to have it all crumble up, and you're not even sure how much you've got. Someone in Denmark has come up with a solution: the Chocolate Fork, a six-tined metal fork with a wooden handle. Each tine is probably heavy enough on its own to break up a square, but when you get the power of all six of them together, you are ready to do some serious busting up of chocolate, whether you are getting it ready for melting, shredding, or simply eating. MAKING THE PERFECT CHILI--PART 2 OF 5: SAUTEING THE ONIONS Too many recipes (especially the ones you buy in premixed packages in stores) tell you to throw everything together at once in the pot. This is not a good idea. As we've already seen, first the meat has to brown properly. But so do the onions. Don't brown the onions with the meat. You can achieve optimal onion flavor by sauteing them after you have removed all of the meat from the pan. This way you will be using not only the original oil you started with but whatever fat has been rendered from the meat. One large Spanish onion, sliced, should do the trick. When the onions have reached a slightly reddish golden-brown color, you are ready for the next step. Now is the time to pour off the excess fat. MAKING THE PERFECT CHILI--PART 3 OF 5: THE SPICE MIXTURE You may have an old family chili recipe that calls for 2 tablespoons of chili powder as its main spice ingredient. Or you may be prone to prepackaged mixes available in grocery stores. If you've found something you love, you're probably not inclined to change your tune. But if you'd like to concoct something truer in taste to a true Mexican chili--the kind you might find in the Yucatan Peninsula rather than on the Tex-Mex border--try this spice mixture: 1 tablespoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground coriander 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1 square bitter chocolate 1 tablespoon sugar salt pepper These measurements are for a pot of chili using 1 pound of meat and serving 4-6 people. Multiply them accordingly if you are increasing the volume of the recipe. MAKING THE PERFECT CHILI--PART 4 OF 5: THE LIQUIDS The following liquid combination brings into balance all of the flavors from your spice mixture. 3 Roma tomatoes (along with their juice), finely chopped 1 small can of tomato sauce 1 can of beef broth 1 bottle of ale Adjust seasonings to taste. Add water if necessary. MAKING THE PERFECT CHILI--PART 5 OF 5: MASA HARINA, THE THICKENER Masa harina is the flour ground from corn that's used to make tortillas. It is much finer than cornmeal and has a stronger, fuller taste. It is the ingredient most often used in true Mexican dishes that provides the final wallop of flavor. You can now find it in most American grocery stores. Not only does it make your chili taste like the real thing, it also lends it the perfect smooth texture. Even if you have made a mistake in estimating your liquid content, you can correct it with masa harina. Start with a tablespoon. When the chili mixture begins to bubble, it will thicken. At this point, you can decide whether you need more masa harina. MANIPULATING HONEY Lots of recipes call for honey instead of or in addition to sugar. Still other cooks like to substitute honey whenever possible because of its higher nutritional content. But, as Pooh himself knew, honey can be a pain to deal with because it's... well... slow as molasses. The cooler the temperature in the place you store honey, the harder it will be to move out of the jar. Even in a warm room, honey is stubborn. No matter at what temperature you store it, this trick will get your honey moving: Fill a saucepan half full (so that it comes 3/4 up the side of the honey jar) of very hot water. Let the jar of honey stand in the hot water for at least 5 minutes. Voila! It moves. It flows. (The same trick, of course, works for molasses.) THE BEST COOKIE CUTTERS ARE MADE OF COPPER Do you have ancient tin cookie cutters stuck away in your kitchen drawers? Cookie cutters you have not used in years that are now covered with rust or worse? They're too much trouble to clean, yet you don't want to throw them out because you're sure those great shapes are not made anymore? Well, those shapes are still made, and best of all they're made in copper, which cleans up very easily and is, from the get-go, a much more pleasant color to look at. Once available only in France, copper cookie cutters are now handcrafted by American coppersmiths. They are sharp-edged and nicely weighted, and they are a pleasure to use (even for children) as they cut through the dough much more cleanly than either tin or ceramic cookie cutters. It's still not too late to buy them for your holiday cookies--or for someone's Christmas stocking! UNSTICK EVEN THE CRUMBLIEST MUFFINS AND MINI-LOAVES Made in Germany, aluminum pans with a matte silver finish and a black nonstick interior will never, under any circumstances, require you to pry out the baked goods. Perhaps even better, they eliminate the need for soaking and scrubbing afterwards. The foolproof method is to use, in small quantity, whatever shortening you are using to lubricate the molds. Place the pan in the freezer for 5 minutes before pouring in the batter. At the end of baking time, let the muffins or mini-loaves cool for about 8 minutes, then remove them so that they do not steam on the bottom and become overcooked. Dip the pans in the soapsuds, rinse, and you are through with your chore. BRING CHESTNUTS OUT OF THEIR SHELLS Peeled and flash-frozen chestnuts are a trade secret professional chefs have known about for years. The rest of us clueless folks have either slaved away at scoring and shelling or bought the tasteless ones bottled in water. But flash-frozen chestnuts are now available from Urbani in Long Island City, Queens, at 800-281-2330. A 2.2-pound bag is $16.50. Store them in the freezer, thaw them for 20 minutes, and use them in any recipe. For a smoky, roasted flavor, bake the little frozen rascals for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. FANCY FOODS GOURMET CLUB If you're looking for a gift for the person in your life who's sick of everything, or if you just want to go explore something a bit out of the ordinary for your own palate, try the Fancy Foods Gourmet Club, which offers, among other things, pastrami-style smoked salmon or pesto-flavored smoked salmon. Yikes, you might be saying, but go check out all of the edible oddities at: FIG MOLASSES You've had fresh figs and dried figs and know well the difference, but have you ever had fig molasses? It's a distillation of Calabrian (Mediterranean) figs, the sweetest of all fruits, and that means big-time natural sugar concentrations. But this molasses is a far cry from Brer Rabbit Blakstrap, and you probably don't want to substitute it for recipes calling for that more traditional kind. For starters, it's pricier--but only in the way that a good balsamic vinegar is pricey. In fact, it looks a little like balsamic vinegar in its fancy little bottle. It's best as a counterpoint to cured meats and pates--rather like a sweet little reduction sauce. But it's also just dandy on ice cream or fruit--especially if you are a sugar freak! You can find it for about $12 at specialty stores or online at: PEET'S COFFEE AND TEA Coffee freaks across America might argue till the beans come in who the nation's best roaster is, but the great majority surveyed select Peet's in San Francisco. The Italian and French roasts have the deepest, richest, freshest flavor and aroma this side of the Atlantic or Pacific. The teas are nothing to sneeze at, either. You can order a catalogue by calling 800-999-2132, or you can go to Peet's online at Mail orders generally arrive anywhere in the U.S. within two business days. It makes for the best-smelling package ever to arrive at your front door! POTATO BREAD For decades, local German bakeries around the country have made potato bread, which has a taste sort of like a cross between sourdough and old-fashioned white bread. The potato flour gives it a little extra zing. Pepperidge Farm now makes an absolutely delicious potato bread that is ideal for toasting. The contrast between the slightly salty taste of the bread and the sweetness of whatever jam you use might just turn it into your new breakfast craving. It's slightly higher in fat content than your average white bread but still fairly low at 2.5 grams per slice. SCRAPE THE LAST DOLLOP FROM THE MUSTARD JAR Ever notice how even your best rubber spatula just won't get that stuff from the bottom of the jar? It's because, in the spirit of its name, the spatula is a flat instrument. But with curved edges, you can get every bit out of every place. The solution has arrived with the Le Creuset heat-resistant curved spatula, which works not only for all of the above but for stirring scrambled eggs, sauteing onions, and lifting whole spices out of the skillet. The best news of all is that it costs only $6. TAKE THE GRIND OUT OF ZESTING LEMON RIND How many times have you cheated in a dessert calling for the "zest" of lemon or orange peel? You think, Oh, what the heck? How important can zest be? And then you either just squeeze in a little juice or forego it altogether. Well, actually, zest is rather important in things like lemon cake or the world's many chocolate-orange dessert recipes. The good news is you can use the Microplane grater, which features razor-sharp edges that let you remove the zest of lemon, orange, and grapefruit effortlessly. The Microplane graters come in different sizes for grating other foods, such as cheese and fresh ginger. Microplane graters are now available for less than $10 at most gourmet or specialty food shops, or you can order from THE BEST OF ELIZABETH DAVID Although the learned and beloved Elizabeth David died in 1992, her spirit and wisdom certainly did not. David was one of those rare British women raised conventionally and conservatively who nonetheless went on to create a grand life for herself. Of her growing-up years, she wrote: "Nothing will surely ever taste so hateful as nursery tapioca, or the appalling boiled cod of schooldays." David was always the wit, and her newly published book, South Wind Through The Kitchen, in addition to being filled with wonderful recipes from her French, Italian, Mediterranean, and Spices cookbooks (among others), has loads of anecdotes about her, each reading like a charming little story. Richard Olney, for instance, describes her as one who "loved conversation, five-hour-long-lunches and, of course, wine--conversation and long lunches are unthinkable without a glass in hand." This book, though it is primarily a cookbook (but in the way that M.F.K. Fisher's books were cookbooks), captures the wit and wonder of the woman who was Elizabeth David. THE OXFORD COMPANION TO FOOD Foodies the world over have been awaiting the publication of this 892-page volume, compiled by Alan Davidson, for over 20 years. It runs from "Aardvark to Zucchini" with chapters arranged alphabetically. A recent New York Times review of it had this to say about The Companion: "The book, an outgrowth of the annual Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, lives up to the highest expectations. It is a masterly work with a variety of voices, from the straightforward and almost dry to the quirky and witty." It is, at the same time, very easy to browse. HE WILTED LETTUCE SALAD, UPDATED Many a mid-century Midwesterner grew up on the wilted lettuce salad, made either with bibb lettuce or overgrown endive. Here is an updated, tastier version of that salad, made with Belgian endive, adapted from Gourmet magazine. It serves 2 people as a meal in itself: 4-5 bacon slices, fried and drained 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice salt and pepper, to taste 4 endives, cut into 3/4-inch pieces 2 ounces Stilton cheese, crumbled 1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped Whisk together oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Add last three ingredients and toss to coat. Crumble bacon over salad and serve. TURN LEFTOVER SALMON CAKES INTO BISTRO-STYLE SANDWICHES Even if you never have any leftover salmon patties, you may want to start doubling your recipe just so you do. And this sauce is the reason: Mix together one-half cup of best-quality mayonnaise with several dashes of habenero sauce and the juice of one-half lemon. Spread it on both sides of toasted bread, place the salmon patty (reheated or not) in the middle, and top with fresh field greens. Be sure to use potato bread for the toast! WHERE TO GET SEA SALT A few readers have written in saying that they can't find high-quality sea salt in their local grocery stores. While many stores now carry sea salt, the top-of-the-line stuff you hear about from sources such as "The Splendid Table" on NPR or Gourmet magazine are generally available through mail order only. And why is that? Well, one reason is that the best sea salt comes from France, and the very best is "hand harvested" in Brittany. Look for the best sea salt in catalogues and Internet sites featuring imported gourmet foods. One place that always has "Fleur de sel," as it's called, is The Baker's Catalogue. Call and order it directly or request a catalogue at 800-827-6836. EPICURIOUS.COM You've got to admit--it's a great play on words. If you visit the site, you'll see what other great play is at hand. As the ads say, "If you want to know how to make it, where to buy it, where not to buy it, and which restaurants serve it, visit:" (Warning, the place is loaded with very, very goofy rhymes. For example, "Olive in a cocktail/Olive all alone/Olive in a salad/Olive marscapone." Ach!) MEASURING CUP SECRET Here's a little something chefs (if they measure at all) have always kept under their hats. For measuring liquid, use a clear or glass measuring cup that is carefully marked by ounces, spoons, milliliters, and so forth, because this allows you to be exact. For measuring dry ingredients, use metal cups because they are much easier to level off with a knife. Every kitchen needs both kinds. CHOOSING THE RIGHT CARDAMOM First of all, there's an argument about the actual name of this Indian spice. Some recipes spell it with an "m" at the end, and others with an "n." But however it's spelled, they're all referring to the same spice--an aromatic member of the ginger family, used not just in desserts and teas, but to flavor all sorts of spicy curry-type dishes. In some areas of the world, it's even used medicinally! But it certainly does not taste like medicine. The subtlest and best flavor comes from the cardamom pod--little green pistachio-like shapes that contain inside them the cardamom seed. The shelled seeds are most often sold in bottles in grocery stores, but they begin to lose flavor the moment they leave the pods. Don't be shy about using the pods and just leaving them whole in whatever dish you are preparing--they even add color, and it certainly won't hurt your diners to bite into one. There is also Black Cardamom from Africa, which has a richer, much smokier flavor but not much subtlety. Use these pods only in dishes that can stand up to them (such as doro wat). CONVECTION OVENS DON'T HAVE TO BE PRICEY MONSTROSITIES You've seen 'em in bakeries. Perhaps you've even seen 'em in basements of people's homes--because they sure won't fit in most kitchens! Convection comes from the word "convey," as in heat being conveyed in a speedier and more thorough manner. In a professional convection oven, large quantities of food (almost any type of food) can be braised, baked, or roasted rapidly. Here's the good news: DeLonghi of Italy now has a convection toaster oven available in the U.S. It has a .5-cubic-feet capacity and accommodates a ten-inch pie or five-pound chicken. It has bake, broil, toast, top-brown, defrost, and warming functions. And it comes in black or white. It's available from Chef's Catalog (800-338-3232) for $159.99. Chef's also has a larger DeLonghi for twice the price. PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE INDOOR ELEMENTS WITH FLEECE We all know about the Fleece Revolution of the last decade. Fleece keeps you warm outdoors, and it's not scratchy like wool, right? Well, get this: Fleece also keeps you cool when you're reaching your hand into the oven--if you're wearing the Woolwork's Ovenwooly mitt, that is. The heat gets trapped in the expandable fibers. These mitts are also a heck of a lot spiffier-looking than your standard quilted Aunt Sally variety. Look for them wherever top-notch kitchen products are sold. BAKING STONES MIMIC BRICK OVENS Who can afford or even fit a brick oven into their kitchen? Hardly anyone. But the next best thing is the baking stone (now sold practically everywhere). The baking stone helps you achieve nearly perfect crusts on pizza and breads. It comes in round or rectangular shapes (of different sizes) that you position on the oven rack, and then you place whatever you're baking directly on it. The stone draws moisture from the dough so that the bottom crust browns and crisps right up. You know what? You can even make your own by using terra cotta tiles from a building supply store. Either way, they're not expensive. GOOD HOUSEKEEPING BAKING Don't be fooled by the title of this big rascal put out by Hearst Books. As Mike Myers' "Coffee Talk" character might've said on "Saturday Night Live," this book is neither about housekeeping nor baking: Talk amongst yourselves. What it's about is good ol' soul-satisfyin' dishes from the oven. We're talkin' everything from teensy-weensy appetizers (spicy cheese straws) to full-course meals (Bisteeya--a Moroccan banquet dish involving layers of phyllo dough, squab [!], eggs, lots of spices, and a sweetened almond filling). The book also has a very handy-to-use "Baking Basics" section that includes descriptions of all the equipment and ingredients you could ever hope to have in your kitchen. Its index in nicely laid out, as well, and easier than pie to use. Oh, and have I mentioned the illustrations? You're gonna salivate over the illustrations. HOMEMADE CHAI TEA It's all the rage in coffee bars and health food stores: Chai tea. Rhymes with tai chi. You can buy it pre-made in boxes, but even the best ones have a certain prefabricated taste. Here's an easy way to approximate the flavor of the real thing at home. To make one mug, pour 8 ounces of skim milk into a small, heavy-bottomed pan, add five or six cardamom pods, and gently bring it to a boil. Add one Constant Comment teabag and turn off the heat. Let it steep for about 4 minutes. Then pour approximately 2 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk into a mug. Remove the pod and teabag from the pan, and pour the hot tea into the mug. Stir. Soothe yourself. STOP FIGHTING WITH YOUR CAN OPENER Ever have the feeling that your can opener is not very loyal either to you or the can? I'm talking about the hand-held ones; electric ones are even worse! Here's one that will be your faithful partner, maybe forever. It's made by Henckels--those famous knife people from Solingen, Germany. It's called the Henckels Gear-Driven Can Opener, and it has black, textured handles (longer than on other brands) that make it easier to hold. It also comes with a built-in bottle opener that actually works. SUPER-CRISPY, EASY GRILLED CHICKEN Here is a tip any Jewish grandmother worth her weight in Kosher salt can tell you about. The less you fool with a chicken, the better. The high temperature sears it; the quick cooking time renders it moist and tender, with a wondrously crispy crust. When you taste this, you will wonder why you ever bothered with marinating or basting. 1 whole roaster or fryer chicken, about 3 pounds 2 tablespoons of Kosher or sea salt Preheat the oven to 500. Remove the innards from the chicken, rinse it thoroughly in cold water, and pat it dry with paper towels. Cover every centimeter of it inside and out with the salt. Place it in a roasting pan or iron skillet in the oven and turn the heat back to 400. Whether grilled or roasted, the chicken will be finished in 40 minutes. Let it cool for ten minutes, then carve it and serve it. WOODEN BREADBOXES ARE BEST Your grandmother knew what she was doing, storing bread in a wooden breadbox. Hardwood keeps bread fresh longer. And Chef's Catalog has one made out of birch with walnut strips that comes with a built-in cutting board. If like so many of us, you have relatives who like to store bread in the freezer because they think that will keep it fresh (when all it really does is dry it out and make eating a CHORE), then this item makes a nice gift, perhaps for Valentine's Day. BAKING POWDER MUST BE FRESH Unlike baking soda (which has single action), baking powder is double acting--it contains both baking soda and an acid ingredient (usually sodium aluminum sulfate). When you mix it with liquid, baking powder immediately begins to release carbon dioxide bubbles, more of which are released while your batter is baking in the oven. Fresh baking powder is a must--to test for freshness, stir one-half teaspoon into a cup of warm water, and if it doesn't fizz up instantly, throw it out. Store new baking powder in a tightly closed container, and never keep it for longer than a year. PASTRY CLOTH Dusting your work surface, dough, and/or rolling pin with a lot of extra flour can end up making your pastry crust tough and too chewy. Instead, try a pastry cloth (a sheet of cotton canvas) for your rolling pin. (In some stores, they are called "rolling pin sleeves.") They require only a light dusting of flour, and some even come with measured rounds marked on them to help you roll dough to just the right size. CREAM OF TARTAR: WHAT IS IT? Recently in a grocery store, a guy wandering down the spice aisle in something of a daze asked me if I knew whether cream of tartar is related to tartar sauce. Huh? It was a little scary to think about what he might be planning to do in the kitchen. (That's sort of like asking if macaroons are related to macaroni.) Tartar sauce, the zesty condiment for fish and seafood, was a French invention--like Steak Tartare, the vegetarian's nightmare. Both were named for a region, as "in the manner of the Tartare." But cream of tartar is a by-product of grape juice--actually, of winemaking. It's a fine white powder (actually a chemical called potassium acid tartrate) added to egg whites while you're beating them to help stabilize them and making for better leavening. Cream of tartar, too, may have originated in France, but it shows up earlier in Middle English. DROP COOKIES Drop cookies, as you probably know, are much easier to make than rolled and cut cookies. All you have to do is mix up the batter and drop it by spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. But there are a couple of pointers to keep in mind. A sheet of cookies will bake more evenly if they're all about the same size. Cookie sheets should be cool when you drop the dough onto them, or the cookies will instantly start to spread, causing them to turn out flat. If you don't have several cookie sheets, then rinse them with cold water between batches. MAMA'S LIL' BABY LOVES SHORTBREAD, SHORTBREAD Ever wonder why a lot of those yummy shortbread cakes and cookies you buy in the gourmet aisle of the grocery have the same little thistle motif? It's because shortbread was invented in Scotland, and the thistle is as important to Scotch lore as the shamrock is to Irish (hence the name of the Irish-Scottish music show on NPR--"The Thistle and Shamrock"). If you make your own shortbread using a mold, you'll find that the molds too often come with the thistle emblem. MARGARINE MESSES UP BAKING Remember those old margarine commercials from the 1970s? "Only Mother Nature knows for sure!" What a crock of non-butter. Anyone with a tastebud on her tongue instantly knows the difference between the imposter and the real thing. And the way consumers were truly led astray was by the myth that margarine is much lower in fat content than butter. Not true, unless you're using one of the plastic-like "diet margarines" with a high water content. Never substitute one of these in a baking recipe, or you'll be one sorry cookie. The real question is why use margarine at all for baking? To get any kind of decent outcome, you have to use the margarine solid sticks, with a fat content of at least 80 percent. Why not go the extra 20 percent and get the genuine taste. Then cut back by eating two cookies instead of four. In the Taste vs. Volume showdown, taste wins every time! WHY HOMEMADE BISCUITS SO OFTEN FAIL There's an old southern saying: "You have to have a good heart and a light hand" to make a proper biscuit. This cannot be emphasized enough: Do not knead biscuit dough the way you knead bread dough. Also, don't stir it too long or overhandle the dough as you cut it. Biscuit dough may in fact be the ONLY food that southerners don't overwork! BRING OUT THE BEST IN YOUR LOBSTER If you're the kind of cook who's not squeamish about dropping live lobsters into the pot, then the next time you do, try this. Before you start to boil the water, squeeze the juice of one whole lemon into the pot. If you're going to use the lobster in some kind of Chinese salad, you can make it even zestier by adding, along with the lemon, a little rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, and sugar. This way, the lobster itself will already be infused with Asian-type flavors. CHERRY TOMATOES RULE You know how every year you hear at least 200 people say, "They just don't grow tomatoes like they used to?" Well, this of course is true because, as with thousands of other products, they're mass-produced. In the summertime, you can find real-life farmers at farmer's markets all over town and country, but after that, a beefsteak tomato is pretty much a tasteless, mealy experience. However, the same is not at all true for miniature tomatoes. Many produce markets all over the country carry delicious, bursting-with-flavor cherry, grape, and pear tomatoes year-round. While they are ideal for salads, they can also be substituted in any recipe calling for cooked tomatoes. If you're not going to use them for sauteing, etc., then canned plum tomatoes are preferable to tasteless larger ones. DON'T LET OVERRIPE BANANAS GO TO WASTE: FREEZE THEM In recipes calling for banana pulp, such as those for banana bread, muffins, or pancake, the easiest way to use the banana is this: Pull it out of the freezer. That's right. Take it from the freezer to the blender. When you see that bananas are heading toward rotting, even if you're not planning to use them immediately, simply place them in the freezer, and it will keep them fresh indefinitely. When you take a banana out to use it in a recipe, you don't even need to let it thaw first. The blades of the blender or processor will take care of that for you. Frozen bananas also work wonderfully well in shakes and smoothies. DON'T LET YOUR BABY LETTUCE ROT The bane of a supermarket shopper's existence is those confounded sprinkling systems they've got going in the produce section. Not only have they been suspected of spreading such infelicitous contagion as Legionnaire's disease, they also leave delicate vegetables drenched and soggy. The most traumatized victim is baby lettuce (or mesclun mix). You bag it up, sopping wet, in plastic, and by the time you put it in your refrigerator, it has already begun to turn color and lose any semblance of crispness. The solution? The moment you arrive home, tear off two sections of paper towel, and surround the lettuce with the toweling. It will absorb the moisture and keep the lettuce crisp in your crisper. HOECAKES Southerners know hoecakes from way back. They were also called ashcake because the cornmeal mixture was baked right in the coals of the open fire. Here's a way to get the best of the colliding worlds of wheat and cornmeal. The next time you make a pancake batter, substitute cornmeal for half of the flour mixture. If the recipe calls for a cup and a half of flour, use 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup cornmeal. The result is lovely--a little like an old-fashioned johnny cake and a little like a mush patty. Worlds collide! LEMONY MUFFINS Here's a nice way to zest up your basic muffin recipe--whether you are using a "scratch" or a prepared mix batter. Add 1 and 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon peel to your mix. Bake as directed. Then use one tablespoon of the juice from the lemon combined with 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar to make a glaze for the muffins. Brush it on while they're still hot. ORGANIC FOODS BY MAIL Have you ever stopped by the organic produce section of your local health food store (or even the grocery store) and been woefully disappointed by the already-rotting vegetables and the "ungassed bananas" that are never going to turn yellow? Or, if you live in a small town, you may have no organic products available at all. Here's a swell answer to both dilemmas: the Diamond Organics All-Organic Food Catalog (1-888-ORGANIC). It has every fruit, vegetable, and herb you could ever want. It has lettuce mixtures, fruit mixtures, nut mixtures, and even Menu-of-the-month options--all of it guaranteed fresh. You can also check them out online at ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES In the non-summer months, the ideal vegetables for oven roasting are root vegetables, particularly potatoes, turnips, carrots, and onions (and you might also throw in some parsnips). You don't even have to peel them first, but they do roast more uniformly if you parboil them. Do that for about 15-20 minutes, then drain and cool them. Chop them into large chunks, toss them in some olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them at 400 degrees for about a half hour or until they begin to turn slightly crispy and golden brown on the outside. They're the ideal accompaniment to roasts of any sort. THE ITALIAN COUNTRY TABLE Lynn Rossetto Kasper, the glib-voiced host of NPR's "The Splendid Table," has a new book called "The Italian Country Table." Whether you love Kasper or hate her, you've got to like this book, which is filled not only with sumptuous recipes but with stories from her trips around the various regions of the country. As a reviewer in Savuer magazine put it, "She is a great observer of life and quite a story-teller. Her focus is sharp, whether describing a Tupperware party in a Tuscan farmhouse or the lives of Italian charcoal makers." Imagine that: a Tupperware party in Tuscany! WHIP THE MAYO Remember Miracle Whip? Of course you do, because it's still around. And still tasting awful, like sugar and air. That's because it IS largely sugar and air. But the reason all those grandmas and aunts (and perhaps granddads and uncles) used to crave it was for its texture. (It couldn't have been the taste. It just could not.) Miracle Whip is smooth. But guess what? You can make any mayonnaise smooth by whipping it with a fork or wire whisk before you add it to a salad or other recipe. Making your own with eggs and olive oil is, naturally, the most flavorful route to take, but even if you use a store-bought "real mayonnaise," lighten the load by whippin' it.
If you like to use spinach instead of meat in lasagna or ziti recipes, here's a simple shortcut. Many recipes instruct you either to drain a frozen package of spinach or to steam or saute fresh spinach before assembling the casserole. But that's not necessary. Instead, place a bunch of fresh adult or baby spinach in your colander before you are ready to drain the pasta. Then drain the pasta right on top of the spinach, and the water from the pan will "cook" your spinach as much as it needs to be cooked. Immediately rinse both pasta and spinach in cold running water. Now you're ready to assemble.
If you make an extra large batch of roasted vegetables, no matter how tasty they are, you're bound to have some leftovers. You will find there's no better soup in the world than roasted vegetable soup. Place any leftover root vegetables into a heavy-bottomed pan, cover with chicken broth, bring it to a gentle boil, then let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Allow it to cool enough to handle. Remove vegetables with a slotted spoon to the food processor. Blend them to a puree, then return the puree to the pan of broth. Stir to blend until smooth, then add milk or cream (or a combination of the two), and season with salt and pepper. It's a soothing, wondrous blend of flavors.
When you're eating rice in a Japanese or Thai restaurant, do you ever say to yourself, "How come I can't get rice to come out like this?" Chances are, it's because you boil your rice at home instead of steaming it. And who can blame you? That's precisely what all the package directions tell you to do. But the trade secret is that all of the best-tasting rice is steamed. The easiest and most foolproof way to accomplish that is with a rice cooker. It sits on the countertop and looks something like a crock-pot. The interior is made of anodized aluminum, marked with measurement lines so that you never mess up. And then the rice stays warm and fluffy without drying out. There is more than one kind available, but Rival makes a great one for $49.95.
This actually applies to any vegetable a recipe requires you to steam and then chill. The trick is to get the vegetable to exactly the right stage of crispy tenderness, which means you have to rely on your eye. Crispy tenderness is usually synchronized with full color. When carrots are bright orange, they are perfect. When asparagus or broccoli is bright green, it is ready to leave the heat. But then you have to stop the cooking immediately, and the way to do this is to drain the vegetables (gently) in a colander and right away run cold water over them. Keep the cold water going until there is no heat whatsoever left in the vegetables. Next allow all the water to drain from them (so that they don't get soggy), and finally they are ready for the refrigerator.
You know they're the best pickles in the world--the French cornichon. But how to you slice the little devils for a salad or relish tray without slicing your own finger? Why, with a cornichon slicer, of course. It looks a little like a glorified fork, only instead of tines, it has eight beveled stainless steel blades to make slicing a razor-sharp snap. The slicer also works on radishes, baby cucumbers, or any other small pickle.
The most off-putting thing about serving lobster (once you've dealt with the odious chore of dumping the live rascals into a vat of rapidly boiling water) is cracking one open. Lots of people use nutcrackers or sometimes even pliers (and then end up frustrated and hungry). What you need are high-carbon lobster shears. They have a super-sharp cutting edge and a strong spring action-brought about by what looks like a giant safety pin wedged between the two handles. The handles themselves are cushioned, providing you with a secure, comfortable grip. Ask about them at your local gourmet shop. Be sure to buy more than one pair.
The Chef's Torch, a butane gem available from the Chef's catalog, is a sure-fire way not to mess up your desserts. It's happened to all of us: You work for hours getting the custard part of a dish just right and then at the last minute, while the guests are waiting with their watering mouths, you burn the daylights out of the sugar topping. Well, say goodbye to all that, because the Torch melts the sugar, presto, like that, while keeping the underneath stuff cool. It also works for roasting peppers or anything else that needs to be charred. It's easy to use because of its adjustable flame, and it's available for $39.99 by calling 800-338-3232 or at
You know the story. The recipe says, "On highest flame, stir-fry the vegetables." But when you do, everything in the vicinity gets splattered, the onions start burning, and the smoke alarm goes off. The reason? Your wok's too thin. Many of us have the same woks we started out with in college days--perhaps even purchased at the local dime store or Goodwill. Give it the boot, and invest in a carbon steel wok. Its principle of heat transfer is similar to that of an enameled cast-iron pan: It cooks food quickly and efficiently. It's also much more pleasing to look at than the old beat-up variety (even if you remain fond of the latter for sentimental reasons).
Not only is tangerine juice one of the most zippy and refreshing drinks on earth, it also is higher in betacarotene and lower in acid than orange juice. This means it's easier on your stomach--if you're one of those folks who cannot tolerate the acidity of citrus fruits. It's ideal if you can squeeze your own, of course, but many grocery stores now carry fresh tangerine juice, not from concentrate. It's a little more expensive than orange juice, but it's worth the price.
You probably already realize that dining on a camping trip no longer has to be the miserable experience it once was. Portable cooking stoves have been around for a long time, but the Burton Burner hasn't. It's a portable, lightweight mini-stove with a built-in ignition system. It comes in its own handy, easy-to-carry case, yet it's also ideal in the home for power outages or indoor buffets requiring you to keep food warm away from the stove. Various cooking supply stores carry the Burton, but you can check it out online at
A lot of people want to eat their cheesecake plain. This is primarily because too many fruit toppings in cheesecake recipes overdo the sweet stuff. They're too sugary and jelled, and the fruit ends up too far away from its original state. This is a shame, for fruit and cheese are natural complements to each other. But here's a way to remedy the situation. When your cheesecake is completely chilled and you remove it from the refrigerator to serve it, simply top it with a pint of fresh blueberries or raspberries--or even a combination of the two. It will look beautiful and taste divine.
As the New York Times recently noted, with ducks, unlike with chicken, the difference is in the breed. With chicken, the difference is in the size--roaster, broiler, fryer--or in how the bird was raised--in a pen or roving freely about the range. Variety of ducks, however, depends entirely on the breed, and each breed has its own taste and distinct qualities. Not only that, but did you know that duck is actually considered a red meat? Today we'll talk about the Pekin (sometimes referred to as "Peking") duck, which is the most commonly used. Over the next few days we'll look at other varieties, and finally end with a superb recipe for Crispy Duck. The Pekin duck is a medium-sized bird, rarely over six pounds. It is the most readily available duck you'll find in supermarkets. Because it's fed on corn and soy (like many other a farm animal), it has the mildest meat--and less of it. Its bones are heavy, and it has lots of fat, which means you must count on about one pound of meat per person you are serving. Despite popular lore about ducks being too fat to fool with, there are ways to drain away loads of that fat and end up with a crispy, tasty dinner.
This rascal originated in South America. It's one of the oldest species of duck and much gamier-tasting than most of its relatives. Although it's often used in restaurants, it's hard to find in grocery stores. But you may have luck in a specialty store--or if you have a butcher who will do you favors. It's worth the trouble because it's denser, sweeter, and not nearly as fatty as the Pekin duck. One three-pound bird serves two with leftovers for duck salad. It's best cooked pink.
You probably know that the mallard is a wild breed. It's hard to come by unless you know a hunter and don't object to the pow-powing of fowl. But now the mallard is also grown in some controlled areas, and you may be able to buy it from a specialty purveyor. It's the smallest of ducks, closer in size to a Cornish hen than to a chicken. Its flavor has a distinct liver overtone; it is both sweet and gamy. And it should be cooked medium-rare.
The Moulard is a cross between a female Pekin duck and a male Muscovy, and it is best used to make foie gras. Moulards are deliberately fattened as they are grown, and so they end up being twice the size of a Pekin duck. Although they are not the most flavorful of ducks, Moulards are on menus all over the place because their dense, muscular legs are good for braising and they make wonderful reduction sauces.
Here is a simple and delicious recipe (adapted from the New York Times) using a Pekin duck because it is the most readily available. Sea salt Freshly ground black pepper 1 4-to-5-lb. duck, rinsed, dried, and cut in half 4 sprigs of thyme 4 cloves of garlic, skin left on and lightly crushed Salt and pepper the duck liberally on both sides. Place each half, skin side down, in a large, heavy-bottomed (preferably cast-iron) pan. Wedge the thyme and garlic under the skin. Cover the pan with its lid or with foil, and place it over low heat. Braise for one hour (duck should crackle and sizzle gently; skin should be golden and crisp; most fat should be rendered). Turn duck. Cover pan. Braise for another hour, until duck bottom is well browned and meat is quite tender. Remove duck to a cutting board; with a poultry shear, halve the halves. Place two tablespoons of the reserved fat from the pan into a clean saute pan, and heat the pan to medium high. Place duck pieces skin side down, and saute for 3-5 minutes, just until skin turns crisp and dark. Transfer to a dish. Serves 2-3 people, depending on their appetite size.
The New York Times has a Web site you will want to check on a regular basis. It offers far more information than the print version of the newspaper does on both dining in and dining out. If at the prompt box in the archives you type in any kind of food item you're looking for, you will immediately be served up with dozens of options, in a very reader-friendly format. Check it out at
Here is a handy-dandy dipping sauce served in many Korean restaurants with scallion pancakes. But it works equally well for any kind of egg or spring roll, and best of all if you serve the spring rolls on top of some baby lettuce: 3 tablespoons seasoned rice wine vinegar 3 tablespoons light soy sauce 1 clove garlic, mashed 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, ground Mix it up. Dip and drizzle. It's spicy! If you want it less so, decrease the amount of cayenne pepper.
The latest thing in fry pans is the attached draining rack, invented by the Japanese, those tempura masters. The rack allows you to let your tempura or egg rolls drain their oil right back into the pan, and it also keeps them hot because they stay right above the heat source. You'll find them in the high-end catalogs, but attached draining racks can also be spotted in some of the neighborhood or non-neighborhood Large Marts.
Iron skillet, that is. In the previous tip, we ended by forming a meatloaf into a loaf shape. Now, the way to give your wonder loaf an extra hit of nutrition is to bake it in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet--not cast iron coated with enamel, but the genuine, black article. Yes, the iron skillet contains the mineral that wards off anemia. If you don't have one handed down by your family, now is the time to get your own skillet going. Follow directions on the tag for initial seasoning. But be sure never to let it soak in water or remain wet for any length of time. Upon drying, you should immediately coat the skillet with oil that you wipe out with a paper towel. Then leave it coated until the next time you use it. This is how it becomes seasoned. Once you start using it, you'll want to use it for nearly everything you bake that will fit in it, except tomato-based products, which will turn more acidic when in contact with iron or aluminum.
Williams-Sonoma now carries these ceramic masterpieces from Thailand. Celadon clay is molded and glazed; then a sheet of actual linen is pressed into the glaze while it's wet, imprinting the clay with a woven texture. As the catalog says, the pieces are "remarkable for their soft, organic shapes," and each is in fact a work of art. At you will find triangular plates, square plates, serving bowls, and chopstick bowls. They'll change your style and attitude toward serving Asian food.
Recently people have been asking, "Just what the heck is Maine shrimp?" Well, it comes from Maine, for starters. But unlike other shrimp (such as Gulf shrimp), it is a winter bounty, with the season usually running from December to May, but the best time to get it fresh is in February, when it is as cheap as $3 a pound! The shrimp is small--and so tender and sweet that it can be eaten raw. But don't do this if it's been frozen. If you're lucky enough to come across it, it will change forever the way you feel about shrimp cocktail--and smoked, it is out of this world. Here are two sources for Maine Shrimp: Browne Trading in Portland, Maine (800-944-7848) Ducktrap River Fish Farms, specializing in smoked Maine shrimp (800-828-3825)
You know how when you buy a meatloaf mixture pre-made at the grocery, it sometimes tastes a little sawdusty? Or you order it in a bistro-type place and wonder if the waiter mistook what you said for "rice loaf"? Well, say good-bye to all that, and try this. Whether you use ground beef as your meat base or some mixture of ground beef with veal, pork, or lamb, add the following: 1 grated carrot, 3 tablespoons grated onion, 1 egg, a large splash of whole milk, a few tablespoons of ketchup, and approximately 1 cup of finely ground Cheerios. Yes, Cheerios! They not only enhance the texture of your loaf, they also add a heap of extra nutrition. (If you want the loaf even fuller, you can also soak a slice or two of French bread in the milk before adding it.) Mix it all thoroughly, and chill it for a half hour before forming it into a loaf.
The New York Times recently printed this Asian version of pot roast. It's truly a delightful turn on the old favorite. 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1 3-4 pound piece of brisket or chuck 1/3 cup soy sauce 5 nickel-size slices of ginger 4 star anise 3 cups cubed and peeled rutabaga or white turnip 1/2 cup trimmed and minced scallions Brown the meat until seared. Combine soy, ginger, and star anise with two cups of water. Pour this over the meat once it's finished browning. Let the meat simmer for about three hours, turning it over once or twice in the process and adding more water if necessary. Remove star anise and add root vegetables. Recover and cook another 30 minutes. Garnish with scallions, and serve either with white rice or mashed potatoes.
Here's a tuna recipe for all you folks who like your fish to be tangy and spicy. It comes from the famous Vong restaurants, growing weekly more famous. Szechwan Seared Tuna with Soy-Mustard Sauce 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard 2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 and 1/2 tablespoons lime juice 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger 6 tablespoons grapeseed oil 4 three-oz. pieces lean sushi-grade Ahi tuna Salt, to taste Coarsely cracked Szechwan pepper, to taste 2 oz. mixed baby greens In a bowl, whisk mustard, soy sauce, 2 tablespoons lime juice, ginger, and shallot. In a steady stream, add 4 tablespoons oil, whisking constantly until blended. Season tuna with salt and pepper. In a fry pan over high heat, warm 1 tablespoon oil until nearly smoking. Add tuna and sear, about 30 seconds per side. Immediately remove from pan. In a bowl, combine greens, remaining tablespoons of oil, remaining lime juice, and salt. Toss to mix and divide among four salad plates. Slice tuna into 1/4-inch thick slices and divide among plates, fanning sliced next to salad. Drizzle 1 tablespoon soy mustard over each serving, and serve immediately. Serves 4.
Whether you are cooking with fresh tomatoes, canned ones, or any tomato sauce or paste product, in the process you'll want to avoid contact with aluminum or iron. For a number of reasons, in general, enamel-coated cast iron is the ideal agent for conducting heat. But tomatoes, in particular, need to be cooked that way. Direct contact with iron or aluminum turns them acidic, often discoloring them as well. Le Crueset pots are top of the line, especially if you can find them at discount prices! And of course, there's always ceramic crockery that never met a tomato it didn't like.
Dressing your salad in the true Italian mode will never get easier than this: the hand-blown glass cruet, shaped like an apple--only within the larger apple (for oil) is a smaller apple (for vinegar). Each has its own pouring spout with a cork stopper that allows you to fill its chamber from a funnel. It not only works like a charm, but also looks festive on your table. You can find it at Williams-Sonoma. It's item #14-2215390, and it costs $40.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Joan Acocella reviewed the culinary canon, "from ketchup to cuisine moralisee." The cookbooks mentioned in the following passage indicate the wacky but interesting range of what's out there: "At the high end, the more specialized end, consider 'The Medieval Kitchen,' by Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi (Chicago; $32.50), which will give you a recipe for the grape-and-garlic sauce . . . that Maestro Martino served to the Patriarch of Aquielia in mid-fifteenth-century Rome. In Maria Dembrinska and William Weaver's 'Food and Drink in Medieval Poland' (Pennsylvania; $20), you can learn how to make Trojniak Pormorski, though you'd better have some wheat beer on hand. If you want to venture beyond Europe, there's Phyllis Pray Bober's 'Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medeival Gastronomy' (Chicago; $50), which will tell you how to put together an ancient Mesopotamian mold of bulgar and green wheat. (Courage! There's a date sauce to go with it.) But why limit yourself to eating? In 1990, Bedford Arts, in San Francisco, reprinted F. T. Marinetti's 1932 'Futurist Cookbook,' with a recipe for Raw Meat Torn by Trumpet Blasts. (This involves going back and forth between eating electrified beef and blowing on a trumpet.) If you prefer something without electricity, how about the 'Star Trek Cookbook,' by Ethan Phillips and William J. Birnes (Pocket Books; $20), with recipes for 'Gagh,' 'Heart of Targ,' and 'Blood Pie,' this last involving a plate of pumpkin-pie filling with a turnip 'sticking up straight to look fibrous and hairy.' The photographs are terrifying."
In the next few days, we'll look at unusual adventures in food writing, past and present. Some of the classics have been reissued, with new introductions. Some new memoirs re-invent food writing. And some are just plain oddball. Let's start with a classic: Brillat-Savarin's 1825 "Physiology of Taste" (Counterpoint), just republished in translation by M.F.K. Fisher. The author believed himself to be writing about the "science" of food, so he writes about such things as the three stages of tasting and the six stages of thirst. However, as pointed out recently in the New Yorker, Brillat-Savarin was a witty, thoughtful man who was the precursor of the modern moral dissertation on food (you know, like when Julia Child calls fat-gram counters "food fascists"). To this fellow, good eating was a virtue, "an implicit obedience of the rules of the Creator." What a rip-roaring fun concept of virtue. Tell THAT to William Bennett.
In this 1981 collection of essays (published by Godine), Sokolov described America's disappearing regional foods (and then brought about a revolution among the gourmets and gourmands). He didn't limit himself to how the foods are prepared. He discusses, for instance, the glories of geese--when they are still alive! ("They can be taught to herd sheep, and they also make good watchdogs . . . They will come when called, untie your shoes, or take the valve cap off automobile tires.") It's not just responsible, historical food-writing he does, but, as Joan Acocella put it, "an elegy in a country barnyard, a meditation on what is, so often, the bad luck of being what one is."
The subtitle of this book (published by Oxford in 1993) is "A Social History of Eating in Modern America," but it is not in any way your typical social history. America has always been blessed with an abundance of food, Levenstein says right off the bat, but when it comes to the national diet, it is a land of stark contrast and paradox. In the early months of the Depression, for instance, there were 82 breadlines in New York City alone, and food riots broke out in such places as Henryetta, Oklahoma, and England, Arkansas. Yet at the same time, among those who were better off, absurd weight-loss diets were the rage--the Pineapple-and-Lamb-Chop Diet, the "Mayo Diet" of raw tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs, and even a Coffee-and-Donuts Diet. Why do Americans eat what they eat? And why, in a land of plenty, do so many eat so poorly? Among other fascinating facts, Levenstein shows how President Kennedy helped revive the mystique of French food; tells us that LBJ had Fresca piped into a drinking fountain outside the oval office; and describes how Richard Nixon ate cottage cheese and ketchup regularly for lunch--not because he liked it but to keep his weight down! This book is pure fun!
Anybody named Wolfgang Schivelbusch had to go in search of something heavenly, right? His subtitle gives away even more: "A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants." So in this book (published by Vintage), you won't find out the best way to blend spices but the numerous way spices and other food products were used for other purposes, some of them highly questionable. Schivelbusch is also a font of information on the subject of eating habits and practices. In 17th-century England, for instance, not just the average person but the average child consumed three liters of beer per day, and the family breakfast more often than not was beer soup.
Get this! Most of the people of pre-industrial Europe lived in a continual state of narcosis because of ROTTED BREAD! In "Bread of Dreams," Camporesi, an Italian historian, uses this fact as a partial explanation for witchcraft crazes and also, perhaps more significantly, for the visionary artistry and feverish faith of Middle Ages and Renaissance painting. Who'da' thunk it? Rotted bread as the cause of burnings and art! But that's not all you'll find here. The book ranges through pre-modern Southern Europe, focusing not on aristocrats but rather on ordinary citizenry in order to arrive at its theory: Europeans lived in various ongoing states of "collective vertigo," hallucination and illness brought on by starvation or the eating of tainted foodstuffs. Hunger, he shows, was the organizing principle of life. It's not the history you learned in school. Yet, as with all of these books we've looked at, it's a history you'd rather read, for it gives a much more vivid picture of life outside war zones and coronations.
At last! Le Crueset, those enameled geniuses, have invented a grill pan. The pan, like all of this type of cookware, gets very hot (with the heat distributed evenly) for the best searing imaginable. This in turn requires you to use less oil than usual. The pan is square-shaped with ridges that leave nice sear marks on meat or fish. It will not rust or absorb flavors and it needs no seasoning, unlike a regular cast-iron pan.
All right, you've heard recommendations for poultry shears, kitchen shears, fish scalers, and hammers for cracking open shellfish. Well, now (no, this is not a K-tel ad) you can get all of these--plus bottle opener, nutcracker, screwdriver, and awl--in one pair of shears. As Williams-Sonoma puts it, "If James Bond carried kitchen shears, this would be the pair." Each hand-polished pair comes from France, and they cost $49.95. They're not available in the stores but are available (item #14-2738516) in the catalog or online at
Here's a way of one-upping the McDonald's Egg McMuffin. Add crumbled pieces of crispy bacon to your biscuit batter right before you roll it out. It makes a mighty fine little treat breakfast, lunch, or snack. Five pieces of bacon per average dough recipe works quite nicely. Try it. You'll find it more than a little addictive.
Here is the true Caribbean way to fry plantains. Allow at least half a plantain per person. Leaving the skin on, cut them in half, and put them into a pan of cold water. Bring them to a boil. It should take about 15 minutes of boiling to get them to the proper degree of softness. Drain them, cool them, and cut the two halves of each in two again. Gently press them flat and saute them in hot butter. Drain on paper towel and serve. If you want, you can sprinkle them with powdered sugar or drizzle them with honey. They work as a dessert or a side dish.
Nothing could be simpler and at the same time more crowd-pleasing than this grilled fish. Take two pounds of grouper (or comparable fish), and gently rub the flesh with salt, freshly ground black pepper, a few teaspoons of olive oil, and the juice of a lime. Place in a wire fish holder and put the fish directly over the hot coals for approximately ten minutes. Serve with rice and a homemade Caribbean salsa.
Every cuisine has its hot sauce, and the West Indian version is called piri piri. Here's how you make it. Take two red chili peppers, and combine them with 1 cup olive oil, the zest of one lemon, and one bay leaf in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Leave it in a warm spot for two or three weeks. The longer you keep the piri piri, the hotter it will get, so bear that in mind. A few drops will enhance almost all Caribbean dishes, especially fish dishes.
No, not the character from "A Streetcar Named Desire," but the thing you do to vegetables that makes them easy to peel. Here's what you do: Drop the cut and cleaned vegetables, such as green beans, into a large amount of rapidly boiling water. As soon as the vegetables begin to brighten in color, remove them from the boiling water with a strainer, slotted spoon, or tongs. Depending on the vegetables being blanched, cooking time can take from less than a minute to up to 3 minutes. To stop the cooking process, plunge vegetables into a large bowl of ice water until they are cooled. Blanching can be done ahead of time if you are going to use the vegetables for cooking. Or crisp blanched vegetables can be either chilled or served immediately.
A classic bouquet garni, often called for in French roasts, soups, and stews, includes: 1 part leaf thyme 1 part whole peppercorns 4 parts finely chopped parsley 1 bay leaf Fresh or dried herbs can be used, or a combination of both. Place herbs and seasonings in a cheesecloth square that is tied up with clean butcher's string. For especially easy removal, make the string extra long and tie one end to the pot's handle. For a variation, try experimenting with rosemary, tarragon, summer or winter savory, and whole cloves.
Braised meats are juicy, flavorful, and tender. Braising, also known as stewing, is a moist-heat, slow-cooking technique that is used to make the most of tougher cuts of meat, such as chuck, round, shank, shoulder, and flank. Meats are sometimes but not always seared before braising to help seal in moisture and flavor and to deepen color. With a pot roast, for instance, you first brown the meat on all sides, over fairly high heat, and then add a bit of water or broth and allow it to stew in its own juices for two-and-a-half to three hours. This is how to make it flake-apart tender.
You find it on the menu of your favorite Irish pubs, but how do you make it at home? Here's how: Leftover mashed potatoes (enough to feed four people) 6 strips of bacon 1/2 cup finely chopped onions 1/2 cup finely chopped celery 1 teaspoon ground sage 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper 1 pound Brussels sprouts, thinly sliced Juice of a lemon Fry bacon until crisp, then drain on paper towels, leaving half the fat in the skillet and reserving remaining fat. Add onions to skillet and saute until soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Add celery, sage, and pepper, and saute 2 more minutes. Add Brussels sprouts, and saute 5 more minutes. Add lemon juice, and then combine vegetables with mashed potatoes. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Shape potato mixture into ten patties, and heat reserved fat in clean skillet. Add patties to skillet and cook until brown and crispy, about 5 minutes per side. Crumble bacon on top and serve immediately.
Sure, most of the time you rely on the canned stuff, but the genuine article is actually quite simple to make and well worth the effort in flavor. In a large pot, cover 4 pounds of washed, raw chicken bones or parts with cold water--enough to cover them by 5 inches. Necks and backs are the most flavorful bones of the chicken, so they are ideal, but you can also make a wonderful chicken stock with a whole, cut-up, raw chicken. Bring water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, skim the fat and scum that have risen to the top with a ladle or spoon. Add 1 pound of a combination of chopped carrots, onions, and celery, and the herbs of your choice. Cook chicken stock for about three hours--long enough for the full flavor to come to the fore. It is important to make sure that the bones stay covered during the entire cooking process, so add more water if needed. Strain the stock through a sieve or a colander before using, refrigerating, or freezing.
This recipe makes such a perfect pancake that you will want it for breakfast with butter and syrup as well as for soaking up spicy sauces later in the day. The flatness is what makes it divine. 1/2 cup whole wheat flour 1/3 cup all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon brown sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon baking powder 1/8 teaspoon baking soda 2 beaten eggs 2 cups buttermilk 1 tablespoon cooking oil Stir together the dry ingredients. Mix the wet ingredients, then add all at once to the flour mixture. Stir until smooth. Pour 2 tablespoons of the batter into a hot greased (preferably nonstick) skillet. Lift and quickly rotate the pan so that the batter covers the bottom. Return skillet to medium heat. Cook about one minute or until light brown on the bottom. Flip. Cook on other side. Repeat with all of batter. Remove to paper towels.
In Ethiopia, this dish is called Doro Wat. (And yes, your dinner guests will get lots of laughs out of the phrase: "You're serving Dorothy WHAT?") This tasty item is quite simple to make and allows you to put your new understanding of braising to work. As the meat does not have to be seared or browned first, your standing-in-front-of-the-stove time is greatly reduced. 1 8-oz can tomato sauce 1/4 cup paprika 1/2 cup dry red wine 1 tablespoon grated gingerroot 2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper (less if you're a weenie) 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 tablespoon cooking oil 1 large onion, peeled and chopped 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 1 chicken, cut up Mix first ten ingredients in medium-sized bowl. Set aside. Fry the onions in the oil. Sprinkle with turmeric. Add onions to tomato sauce mixture. Place chicken pieces in large, heavy pot. Spoon all of the sauce over the chicken. Bring mixture to boil. Immediately reduce heat and cover. Stew (braise!) for 45 minutes. Remove lid from pan, and allow chicken to cook for 15 more minutes. Serve with flat bread (recipe to appear in our next tip).
Many cooks shy away from making a roux, which is essential not only to the majority of Cajun dishes but also to French sauces and even your basic white sauce. With the right equipment and attention, you can become adept in no time at making a roux. Melt butter in a small, heavy pan over low heat. (For most recipes, three tablespoons of butter and three tablespoons of flour are the right amount.) When the butter is melted, whisk in an equal amount of flour, continuing to whisk until the mixture is smooth. Allow the mixture to bubble slowly, whisking constantly so that it does not burn. Keep heat very low throughout the cooking process. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes, or until it is pale golden in appearance. At this point, it will have lost some of its raw flour taste. Some roux are cooked longer than this typical white roux. The longer you cook it, the more flavor it has. Slightly darker, blond roux is darker and thinner in texture than a white roux, while brown roux is more pungent and nutty in flavor. A blond roux cooks for approximately 6 minutes. Brown roux, which has much less thickening power than white roux, is used primarily to thicken classic brown sauces and gravies.
Dissolve one package of dry yeast into 1/4 cup of water that is slightly cool to the touch, about 85 degrees F. Yeast is killed at temps of more than 105 degrees, so while cool water may slow proofing time, it will avoid killing the yeast. Add one teaspoon of sugar, to feed the yeast. Yeast is a fungus that feeds on sugars and gluten in flour. It in turn multiplies and produces carbon dioxide as a by-product. Carbon dioxide bubbles cause dough to rise. Stir to dissolve yeast and sugar. It will take about ten minutes until the yeast begins to bubble or foam. If it does not foam, it is not alive and should not be used. Combine the entire proofed mixture with the liquid ingredients in your dough recipe. Remember that rich ingredients such as butter, oil, honey, and even salt slow the rising action of the yeast, so be sure to allow for enough rising time when baking with these ingredients.
Here is the way to make perfect egg whites. A copper bowl is ideal, because copper reacts with the albumin in egg whites and makes for better foaming. Wash your bowl with vinegar and kosher salt, then rinse well just before adding the whites. Use a whisk or an electric hand mixer on a low setting until the whites are foamy. At this point, add a pinch of cream of tartar to stabilize the whites. This helps them to hold their shape longer. Continue to whip. If using a hand mixer, increase the speed. If your recipe calls for sugar, add it as the whites are beginning to form soft peaks. Whip the whites until they form stiff, glossy peaks that retain their shape. If you over-whip unsweetened egg whites, they will lose their glossy appearance and their ability to stay in firm peaks.
Searing is a cooking method that uses high heat to capture the natural juices and flavor of a cut of meat or fish. It can be used on its own or in combination with other cooking methods, such as roasting or braising. Keep heat medium-high to high throughout the searing process. It's a smoky process, so don't be alarmed by a smoking pan or the setting off of a sensitive smoke alarm. If you turn down the heat, you will hamper the searing process. Heat a small amount of oil in a heavy-bottomed saute pan. Pat dry and season whatever cut of meat you are using, such as a chuck roast. When the oil is just beginning to smoke, add the meat to the pan. Once the meat has been set down, it is very important not to move it until it has developed a rich brown crust. Lift the meat with tongs and turn it onto another side once it has been suitably seared on the first side, and continue creating crusts. Crusts should be created even on the edges, which may have to be seared by holding the cut of meat upright with the tongs. When the meat is properly seared, it will be completely crusted and brown on all surfaces and rare on the inside.
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